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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Plan to shield voters' information stalls before first Senate vote

20

January

A Senate committee Wednesday postponed debate and the first vote on a controversial public records exemption that would make secret the names, addresses, birthdates, and email addresses of all registered voters on Florida's statewide voter database.

The bill has drawn significant support and opposition and it appears to have been inspired largely by one man: Tom Alciere, a former New Hampshire state legislator, who operates a for-profit web site, flvoters.com, and similar sites, using publicly available voter information. Alciere and any citizen can get a copy of the Florida voter database for five dollars. His work has inspired a Facebook page called "Tom Alciere Is Violating Your Privacy."

Alciere resigned his House seat in New Hampshire in 2001 after he said he supported the killing of police officers, according to a New York Times story.

Florida election supervisors cite growing concern about identity theft as a main reason for their support of the bill. They say they have had calls from people who are shocked to see their date of birth, home address and private phone number on websites and that some have left the voter rolls as a result. (A voter's phone number is on the statewide voter database if the voter lists it on a voting application).

"It's a priority of the voters. This is coming from voters who call us," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "They click on it (Alciere's site, and find) ... everything you would need for identity theft."

The bill (SB 702) was filed by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, at the request of his hometown Supervisor of Elections, Lori Scott. The 67-member supervisors' association strongly supports the bill. The First Amendment Foundation opposes it, as do Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Advancement Project.

The chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he tabled the bill because Altman was absent and sent a legislative assistant to explain it, and because nearly a dozen people had signed up to testify for or against the bill.

"There is insufficient justification for providing a statutory exemption for information easily obtained from publicly available sources," First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen wrote in a letter of opposition. "Additionally, researchers and statisticians in compiling information about voters and specific elections commonly use this information, and to close access to important historical information is contrary to the public interest."

Similar bills are awaiting votes in other states. For example, in Connecticut, Democratic Sen. Paul Doyle has filed a bill to restrict access to voter information. As a result, Alciere has posted a message on another of his sites, connvoters.com, saying that voter information has been duplicated on many sites, including in foreign countries. "What is already public, however, is public forever," the message says. 

Altman's bill would keep voter information available for candidates and political committees, who currently have access to absentee ballot data not available to the public. As a proposed new Florida public records exemption, his bill would require a two-thirds vote by both houses of the Legislature to become law. Three years ago, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a more modest variation of the same idea, a bill that would have kept secret the email addresses of voters who electronically request sample ballots.

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 2:47pm]

    

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